Easter Sunday. A potentially crucial day in the engrossing saga that is the title race. At one hour past noon, Manchester United would host Queens Park Rangers. A win would see an eight point gap open up at the top of the table, at least momentarily, as Manchester City would visit Arsenal soon after. For fans of either side, the day could be made much better with the right pair of results.
Lining up against Mark Hughes’ side, United set up with David De Gea in goal, with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans partners in central defense, with Patrice Evra and Rafael Da Silva on the left and right respectively. In midfield, the preferred pairing of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes started with Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia out wide on the wings. Up front, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck were leading the attack.
The game kicked off with the home side immediately looking to set out their stall, aiming to maintain possession and finding themselves with early chances to get the scoring underway. With United looking for a way through early on, notable attempts came from an early Rooney free kick and Ashley Young powering forward, only to catch Welbeck unawares. After holding off the early threats, QPR were able to get forward themselves for a bit until just under a quarter of an hour, disaster struck for the visitors.
It was a moment in which QPR were justified in feeling aggrieved as an offside Ashley Young was played in and apparently felled by Derry, for which he received a red card. The resulting spot kick was well finished to the Kenny’s right by Wayne Rooney. 1-0 and possibly a huge moment in the title race. Now playing against 10 men, United continued to dominate possession as their opponents tried to readjust to their disadvantage. Chances came and went, with Valencia down the right finding ways to provide Rooney and Welbeck with chances, and Rooney could well have doubled his tally with a 20 yard effort. Alas, it was not to be as United went in at half time with the solitary goal lead and the extra man advantage.
The second half began much as the first ended, with United continuing to dominate possession and continued to create chances, with the home side perhaps being a little wasteful on occasion with Rooney, Welbeck and Young all finding themselves with chances and Rafael hitting the bar.
However, with just over 20 minutes left to play, it would be Paul Scholes, brought in after the New Year to much scepticism, to seal the points. After Taarabt gave the ball away, Rafael played the ball to the midfield veteran, and from about 20 yards hit a smooth finish past Kenny to double the lead. Chances continued to be produced and QPR themselves with opportunities to set up a thrilling finale, but it was not to be as United saw the game out at 2-0 and move eight points clear at the top of the table. With Manchester City losing away to Arsenal later on, that eight point difference remained as the fight to be Champion swung firmly in United’s favour. Six games are now left this season, and Sir Alex Ferguson will be keen to ensure no complacency creeps into his side as the league draws to a close.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) The penalty – wrong decision that affected the game
Although dominating from the opening minutes against QPR, one must wonder if such control would have been sustained had the half gone on without incident. Instead, United found themselves at an advantage when Young was adjudged to have been brought down by Derry and as such were awarded a penalty and the offending player shown a red card within the first quarter of an hour. Assuming the decision was correct, then a sending off was likely the correct decision given the circumstances. However, it was clearly for everyone watching that such events should not have occurred in the first place. First, in the build up to playing in Young, it was clear that he was offside and as such a free kick should have been awarded to the visitors. The second point is perhaps more contentious to some but regardless, even the most biased of the United faithful would struggle to deny that contact, if any at all, was minimal. I am not convinced myself that there truly was contact, but some will argue that any at all in this era is met with a chance by the player in question to give the referee reason to award the spot kick. It was indeed a harsh moment for the visiting side and one that left them with an uphill battle from early on, faced with the prospect of playing the majority of the game with a man down. Although United had been in control up until that point, one cannot deny that the dynamic of the game changes and the chance for the visitors to actually compete is much reduced based on a decision that was simply wrong in the first place. From the eyes of the home faithful of course, as with any side, such luck is welcomed at the business end of the season.
2) Paul Scholes – a gamble that paid off
Bringing back Paul Scholes from retirement was always going to be questioned from onlookers as to what benefit could really be gained. At best, some expected him to have a useful role from the bench, an additional man to bring a little more depth to the squad and with the kind of experience that provides a good example to others within the side, particularly in a title run in. However, the contribution from the veteran midfielder has been far greater than many thought possible, starting on a regular basis and arguably providing a catalyst that helped push United on during the second half of the season. His second half goal against QPR was the reward for a commanding performance in which he controlled the midfield area, providing creative play and continuing to show a good partnership with Michael Carrick. Worth keeping another season? Possibly, although I do believe some sort of change will need to be made to the midfield, perhaps a new name as such reliance going into a new season would likely be unwise.
3) Wasteful going forward, but points over style
Many fans will point out, with which I agree, at that this point of the season, the gaining of victories and points, takes precedent over the manner in which victory is achieved. The fact of the matter is that with a points advantage a goal difference that has been clawed back, the priority is seeing out the season making every effort to gain three points each time, rather than carelessness in trying to be stylish. That said, it is perhaps worth noting that United could have been better in front of goal on occasion on Sunday afternoon. Danny Welbeck, in particular, arguably guilty of simply trying too hard, found himself squandering strong chances, a notable example occurring when he was played in by Rooney but failing to finish off, with Kenny producing a double save. Rafael also perhaps could have done better, almost appearing to panic as he was played in by Scholes, only to have his shot come off the QPR goalkeeper and on to the bar. A day of plentiful chances, one in which United could have done better with some of the chances produced, but ultimately came away with a comfortable victory and that is what matters.
4) Patrice Evra – better off staying back?
Although the French left back can be menacing when he uses his pace to get forward from a defensive position, I must admit to frustration whenever I see him with the ball advancing down the left side, only to see it squandered with a poor pass or wasteful cross, at which point occasionally, he is left exposed as the opposing side try to counter. Although this does not occur all the time it can be an irritating aspect of his game. On Sunday afternoon, one could see that Evra did not get forward quite as frequently as usual, opting for a more defensive setting either out of lack of opportunity or simply because there was no need. Although there have been occurrences when defensively he has been beaten a little easily this season, one must admit that seeing him take a defensive mindset allows for a more reassured outlook on the back four, especially when considering the lively way in which Rafael on the right likes to get forward.
5) Eight points clear, better goal difference – the title race is not over
With six games remaining and with a commanding eight point gap opening up at the top of the table, the fact I have just stated the title race is not over may appear perplexing. Yes, with such a strong lead going into the last few games of the season, one cannot dismiss the fact that the season is firmly in favour of United and that it would take a rather dramatic collapse to lose out on a 20th title now. That said, fans will acknowledge that the side will not rest on their laurels going into the final games of the season, and the importance of winning the remaining fixtures until the title is officially theirs will no doubt be emphasised by Sir Alex Ferguson. The importance of keeping out complacency and maintaining professionalism cannot be underestimated as United look to conclude the title race as soon as possible. With Arsenal defeating Manchester City at the Emirates 1-0 later in the day, in which United’s title rivals had Balotelli sent off, Ferguson will probably have been watching the game with a sense of calm, but knowing the situation is in his hands, he will want to ensure such circumstances stay that way.